Holding Your Smartphone Makes it Harder to Think

Where do you keep your phone while you’re at work or school?

If you keep it within arm’s reach, you might not be performing your tasks to the best of your ability, even when it’s turned off.

That seems silly—people who work at a desk likely keep their phone nearby so they can check it throughout the day. Some of us might even use our smartphones as a tool at work, but the results of one study—the first to test how cognitive function is linked to smartphone proximity—suggests it might be worth experimenting with storing it in another room when you’re trying to get stuff done. In fact, our cognitive capacity might actually be reduced by a phone’s mere presence.
Smartphone pbs rewire

Why phones zap our brains

Researchers asked about 800 smartphone users to sit at a computer and take a series of tests that required a lot of concentration. The tests measured each person’s cognitive capacity—how well their brain could hold and process data.

Each test-taker was asked to switch their phone to silent and put it either on their desk face-down, in their pocket or bag or in another room.

You guessed it: The participants whose phones were in another room did better on the tests. They significantly out-performed the folks who set their phones on the desk, and slightly out-performed those who put them in their pocket or bag.

This suggests that even when we think we’re not being distracted by our phones, we are.

“We see a linear trend that suggests that as the smartphone becomes more noticeable, participants’ available cognitive capacity decreases,” said Adrian Ward, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor at McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, to the university.

Our brains are subconsciously trying to ignore our smartphones when they’re nearby. And that takes energy.

“Your conscious mind isn’t thinking about your smartphone, but that process—the process of requiring yourself to not think about something—uses up some of your limited cognitive resources,” he said. “It’s a brain drain,”

Are you smartphone dependent?

Do you start to panic at the mere thought of leaving your phone at home or letting it run out of juice? If you feel like you need your smartphone with you to get through your day, you might also be at risk for lowered cognitive capacity.

Smartphone pbs rewireThe researchers asked another batch of smartphone users to rate how phone-dependent they thought they were. They were asked to put their phones on the desk face-up, in their pocket or bag or in another room. Some were also asked to turn off their phones. They completed the same tests as the first group.

The folks who said they were more dependent on their smartphones performed worse on the tests when they kept their phone on the desk or in their pocket or bag, even if the phone was off or they couldn’t see the screen.

Another research team is developing a smartphone operating system that would learn a user’s personality and behaviors and figure out when not to send notifications to minimize distraction and increase productivity. But the cognitive capacity studies indicate incoming texts and likes aren’t our only sources of distraction. We’re distracted by the mental work we’re doing to not look at the phone.

“It’s not that participants were distracted because they were getting notifications on their phones,” Ward said. “The mere presence of their smartphone was enough to reduce their cognitive capacity.”

Does all this sound eerily familiar? You might try keeping your phone in another room (or at least out of sight) for a day and see how it goes. Or try these other methods for cutting digital distractions.

Some good news: When we’re really motivated, our brain automatically cuts distractions.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.